Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

U.S. Justice Department demands voter-purge information from Florida counties

The U.S. Department of Justice has sent subpoenas to nine of the largest counties in Tampa Bay, South Florida and Central Florida, demanding extensive information over how they identified and purged potential noncitizens from the voter rolls.

The subpoenas, sent July 30, were issued in a federal lawsuit in which the Justice Department has argued that any purges of voters done less than 90 days before a statewide election are in violation of federal law.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee indicated in a previous ruling in the case that the removals could be lawful within 90 days of a federal election, but he also faulted Gov. Rick Scott's administration for implementing a purge program that cast such a wide net that it burdened hundreds, if not thousands, of lawful citizen voters.

Miami-Dade, the state's most-populous county and the one with the most foreign-born residents, had such concerns over the accuracy of the purge list provided by the state that Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley decided May 31 not to implement the program.

"There were so many problems that we stopped," said Christina White, a deputy elections supervisor.

The state initially identified more than 180,000 potential noncitizens on the rolls. The state refused to release that list, which the news media and federal government have demanded, until Thursday.

Of the initial 180,000 names, the state sent a list of nearly 2,700 names of potential noncitizens to elections supervisors around the state.

Of that list, 1,637 people were identified in Miami-Dade as potential noncitizens. Of those; 554 provided proof of citizenship, White said, and 14 admitted they were ineligible to vote. Those who said they were noncitizens remain off the rolls.

In addition to Miami-Dade, the eight counties ordered to produce records are Pinellas, Hillsborough, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange, Collier, Lee and Bay.

The purge and the high error rate of the state's database became a flashpoint in the national debate over voter rights and voter fraud. Liberals accused Scott of voter suppression, noting that about 87 percent of the people on the purge list were minorities, while conservatives accused opponents of abetting voter fraud. Republicans in states like Ohio, a crucial presidential swing state like Florida, launched efforts to spot and crackdown on potential noncitizen voters.

The federal government soon sued the state.

The subpoenas it issue demand information "generated, provided or transmitted by Florida to (your) county that identify registered voters, including (your) county registered voters, as potential non-citizens based on Florida's data matching procedures using the Florida Voter Registration System ('FVRS') and the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles' ('DHSMV') Driver and Vehicle Information ('DAVID') database."

The subpoenas also ask election supervisors to "include all documents reflecting the date the voter was removed, and, if applicable, the date the voter was reinstated."

This year, about 100 potential noncitizens have been spotted on the rolls so far, officials say. Nearly half might have voted.

Before the state began its program, Lee and Collier counties conducted a separate noncitizens purge. Collier said it found 10 noncitizens and Lee more than 40. They were spotted after a local television station compared the voter files with the names of people who got out of jury service by saying they were noncitizens.

In Collier, two people are being prosecuted for voter fraud.

While most big counties such as Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Broward stopped their purges, Collier and Lee continued with the state program and identified about 40 more people. Under the state program, those who don't respond to certified letters questioning their right to vote are purged within about 60 days.

Activists say that puts too much of a burden on citizens to prove their lawful voting status.

In addition to the U.S. Department of Justice's federal suit in Tallahassee, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state in a federal case in Tampa and a coalition of other liberal voting-rights groups led by the Advancement Project are suing in a federal case in Miami.

Scott's administration says it's just trying to follow the law and make sure that unlawful voters aren't casting ballots. For months, the administration tried to get access to a citizenship database controlled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which refused to furnish the information.

After Judge Hinkle refused to issue an injunction against the state purge — in part because it had already been halted — Homeland Security gave the state access to the database.

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